Spunk that is thicker than skin

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Is Bollywood scripting more red-blooded women or are some leading female actors showing the way with their frank regard, both inward and outward? It may be too early to call it a trend but Vaani Kapoor’s Befikre isn’t happenstance.

Have you caught Vaani Kapoor in Aditya Chopra’s Befikre yet?

No, the movie isn’t due for release till early December — the Yash Raj Films (YRF) banner is only priming audiences with carefully orchestrated teasers, posters, songs and interviews that are now the norm for Bollywood’s more powerful producers. Going by the trailer...

... Chopra is probably overstating his pitch for the boldness of his latest romance, as if spunk was not so much a noteworthy quality of the protagonists as an end in itself, but he has us hooked like he wants us to be. This is the third film for model-turned-actor Vaani Kapoor, who debuted in YRF’s Shuddh Desi Romance as the delightfully insouciant bride of a runaway groom, and won praise for her reprisal of the feisty heroine in YRF’s Aaha Kalyanam, the Tamil-Telugu remake of its own Band Baaja Baaraat. Given her free-flowing screen presence in Befikre’s ‘Nashe si chadh gayi’, the song rendered in a male voice that cannot get over imagining a real woman as a nasha (intoxication), a star just got born.

Kapoor is remarkable for her unbridled sensuality, so comfortable in her own skin that it’s easy to forget she attended the Mata Jai Kaur Public School in north-west Delhi’s little-known Ashok Vihar, isn’t the descendant of a filmi khandaan (dynasty), and auditioned several times for this role despite being on a three-film contract with YRF.

It would be tempting to draw parallels and say Indian women of a certain section of society are coming of age but the mid-to-upper-middle-class multiplex audiences for which films such as these are being produced remain a long way from making the transition — patriarchy rules them in a globalised world of rapidly homogenising cultures, often West-driven, while they try to hang on to older and ‘safer’ value systems that rely heavily on the self-denial of their women. This peculiarly time-warped class willingly pushes the marriageable age of its young to the mid-to-late-twenties in the competitive chase for higher education and jobs, but expects them to remain entirely asexual in the meantime by frowning upon even dating.

So, are Bollywood’s women now actually able to express themselves as sensual beings in central roles without being judged as immoral?

Into this broadly mainstream commercial context have arrived the etchings of self-made women following their own rules instead of morphing suddenly from sexy girlfriends into good wives as they customarily do, the image switch pronounced when they dress in saris and bindis instead of sarongs and bandeaux. Among these mavericks, in no particular order, are Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s heisting Sunehri and Katrina Kaif’s acrobatic Aaliya in the second and third editions, respectively, of the eminently forgettable Dhoom series, also from the YRF stable; Anushka Sharma’s intrepid Farah Ali in Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do, a girl who runs away from home to dance and doesn’t think too much either before bedding a rich scion or walking out on him when he turns out to be less than reliable; Deepika Padukone’s bravura titular role in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, where her fiery passion, courage and pathos bring undeniable honesty to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s grandiose oeuvre; or Alia Bhatt as the confused Tia Malik in Shakun Batra’s intimately rendered Kapoor & Sons, her exuberant dancing in the catchy ‘Kar gayi chull’ the vision of a ladki beautiful.

The 42-year-old Rai Bachchan, daughter-in-law to the marquee Bachchans and mother of a little girl, which bears stating since it’s inseparable from her identity in a business built almost entirely on youth and image, goes one step further in the upcoming Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The story, still under wraps at the time of writing, pairs a mysterious and sultry Rai Bachchan in an openly sexual relationship with a younger man, and she is found saying, unequivocally, ‘ Mein kisiki zaroorat nahin, kwhaish ban-na chahti hoon’ (approximately translated as ‘I want to be desired, not needed’).

This is subtly but clearly different from the more commonly-seen enticement of, say, Katrina Kaif as Harleen, the clueless bank clerk who wears mini-skirts in Shimla’s snow in Siddharth Anand’s over-the-top Bang Bang!, or Kaif again as the wilting Diya in Nitya Mehra’s poorly-scripted Baar Baar Dekho, where she plays a gorgeous artist throwing herself into a marriage with a reluctant man. In both roles, the perfectly stunning Kaif’s physical appearance remains pivotally on display from start to finish without nuance or depth, structured almost entirely for the viewing pleasure of the male gaze.

To date, while the sexy woman is most often seen onscreen as the default entertainment quotient in a masala-laced formula, conversely, the sparkling intelligence of stellar female leads is limited to chaste propriety

So, are Bollywood’s women now actually able to express themselves as sensual beings in central roles without being judged as immoral? As trends go, this doesn’t yet qualify as one. Rai Bachchan is singular in her ability to reinvent herself, a Bollywoodian anomaly. Her carefully cultivated touch-me-not mystique, which can never be called vulgar, is almost a subconscious element of her persona. It keeps her eminently desirable despite never being out of sight in a remarkably long career at the top, over which she had the nerve to appear at the 65th Cannes Film Festival in 2012 with unshed post-pregnancy kilos.

Indeed, Rai Bachchan makes it easy to forget that she won her Miss World title well over 20 years ago, in 1994, and in the years since, her composite filmography of 40-odd films, with several special or guest appearances, has not set the box-office on fire nearly often enough, nor has she earned accolades for her acting chops. Her legend as the ‘most beautiful woman in the world’ was nevertheless propelled to its stratospheric heights by the support she received from directors like Mani Ratnam (she debuted in his Iruvar in 1997, he cast her again in Guru in 2007, and then again opposite two different leading men in the Hindi/Tamil Raavan/ Raavanan in 2010) and Sanjay Leela Bhansali (who gave her three films that relied considerably on her ethereal screen presence when seen through his lens — Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam in 1996, Devdas in 2002, and the least-remembered Guzaarish in 2010).

Rai Bachchan’s uniquely enduring appeal may then be juxtaposed against the comparatively short-lived yet critically and commercially acclaimed career of her mother-in-law, then known as Jaya Bhaduri, who retreated to a life of domesticity after marrying Amitabh Bachchan at a time when her star outshone his. The younger woman’s sybaritic screen presence in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil points decisively to the vast sea change in the way female actors have appeared in Bollywood, publicly and in their personal life, over the last generation and this one. Sure, we can hope producers, scriptwriters and audiences have changed alongside the improved autonomy that some women actors now exercise at will, but it may still be a misplaced hope.

To date, while the sexy woman is most often seen onscreen as the default entertainment quotient in a masala-laced formula, conversely, the sparkling intelligence of stellar female leads is limited to chaste propriety even in author-backed roles like the 2014 sleeper hit Queen featuring a resolutely platonic Kangana Ranaut as a once-in-a-lifetime lead character discovering herself alone in Paris after being ditched at the altar, or Deepika Padukone in 2015’s charming Piku, which, for all its comic wisdom, never calls to question the irrationally possessive father who talks as loudly about his bowel movements as his daughter’s apparently exasperating virginity (he should be one to ask since he doesn’t allow her so much as a quiet dinner date without dragging her back to his hypochondriac emergencies).

It is left, therefore, to the actors to tutor themselves in the sort of self-assured sensuality of which we cannot speak without referring to the 34-year-old Priyanka Chopra, who may yet surpass Rai Bachchan in remaining relevant beyond the years allowed to her by the system.

She is by turns impish (the sister of a political goon who efficiently organises a shotgun wedding for herself when she gets pregnant in Kaminey), exquisite (the smart yet neglected daughter and wife of Dil Dhadakne Do, a role in which Chopra conveyed both fragility and strength with haunted eyes and a wispy frame; the film released the same year in which she played the beefed-up power woman of the 2015 biopic Mary Kom), and riveting (the unwavering ghuroor or pride of the loyal Kashi in Bajirao Mastani, which makes you wonder why a brilliant statesman would be unfaithful to a wife this fetching).

No matter how she is cast, Chopra’s poise lingers long after her performance is done and reviewed. This subtlety is perhaps critical to being perceived as a sensual woman, unattainable in her within-ness, vis a vis a sexy woman, whose allure is limited by the prejudices of the viewer. It’s this indefinable quality that breaks new ground in Bollywood and there’s no looking back from it.

The gutsy beauty from Befikre dares what we know not yet, but dare she does. She is not a vamp or an ‘item’. The camera loves Vaani Kapoor because she loves herself. The audience is welcome to watch.

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